President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Daunting Challenges and Extraordinary Opportunities


By Chinua Akukwe


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 19, 2006


Liberia on Monday January 16, 2006 began the process of regaining its historical role in Africa as the oasis of stability and inspiration when its new president, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf assumed office. As the first elected female president in Africa, President Johnson-Sirleaf made history for herself, for women and her country. However, the new president must now contend with major challenges. The president also has an incredible opportunity to change Liberia for the better. I briefly discuss these daunting challenges and extraordinary opportunities.

Daunting challenges in Liberia

The challenges facing President Johnson-Sirleaf is without any doubt, daunting.

First, there is an unbelievable high expectation that more than 25 years of rot, political instability, war and destruction will be overcome quickly. Expectations are so high that it is difficult for the new government to have the traditional honeymoon period with voters.

Second, Liberia’s basic infrastructure, for all intents and purposes, is destroyed. Water, sanitary services, electricity and roads have borne the brunt of more than 14 years of brutal wars and bad governance.

Third, reconciliation and rehabilitation efforts in Liberia have at best being tentative and largely infective in the last two years. Thousands of child soldiers are yet to begin schooling or become integrated into the society. Demobilization of battle hardened former government and rebel fighters have at best, being spurious. Liberian refugees are still scattered outside of the country. A national process of truth and reconciliation
regarding evil acts committed during an era of unbridled impunity is yet to gain traction.

Fourth, the hydra-headed monster of corruption, according to published reports, remains alive and well in Liberia, even during the tenure of the transitional government. This is against a backdrop of a country that had witnessed extraordinary suffering of its citizens and the complete collapse of its infrastructure.

Fifth, a generation of Liberian children have grown up and become young adults without an extended period of peace, extended period of schooling and extended period of socialization within familial and community surroundings. All that these children but now young adults have known are the horrors of war. A country with a long history of civilization and Western education may now have a generation that never experienced normal family upbringing and age-appropriate education. A non socialized and non educated generation may cause irreparable damage to the future political, economic, social and cultural stability of a country.

Sixth, poisonous ethnic jingoism is now a way of life in Liberia. Experiences from other African countries show that ethnic jingoism remains an intractable foe of cohesive, national development and renaissance.

Seventh, Liberia will have to create a modern, apolitical national army and police force. A major issue is the role of combatants active during the war years. Another concern will be ethnic and criminal militias who have perfected the techniques for guerrilla warfare and can resurrect an insurgency at moments notice.

Eight, President Johnson-Sirleaf’s government will have to share power with its international partners through the Governance and Economic Management Program (GEMAP). Sooner rather than later, differences of opinion will arise regarding project priorities, feasibility, cost efficiency and cost effectiveness.

Ninth, HIV/AIDS will increasingly become a major threat to Liberia. Years of rape will likely fuel a rise in the incidence of HIV transmission. Other diseases such as TB and Malaria will remain major problems as the nation begins its long recovery and citizens begin to regain control of their lives.

Despite these challenges, the new president has incredible opportunities in her favor to change the fortunes of Liberians. What are these opportunities?

Incredible Opportunities to Change Liberia

A) Demography and geography favors a dynamic president and her cabinet. Liberia with 3 million people and a relatively small landmass is not a “huge” country. A hardworking government, relentlessly focused on the welfare of its citizens should be in a striking position to meet the needs of its people.

B) A non-renewable tenure of six years is long enough to lay solid foundation for governance in Liberia and make life much easier for Liberians. A non-renewable tenure will also minimize the influence of professional sycophants that often reach the heights of their powers during periods of political instability and wars. These sycophants have made their living in many African countries by knowing how to stroke the omnipotent fantasies of sit-tight leaders. As long as this government maintains its stand on a non-renewable term of six years, it would free itself up to concentrate on the urgent task of rebuilding Liberia and rehabilitating Liberians.

C) The new government can end government corruption by steadfastly implementing a policy that makes the public sector “non-lucrative” for its leaders and staff. As long the government remains the dominant sector and the most “lucrative” segment of the economy, corruption and misappropriation of national resources will flourish. The new government has the opportunity to make government operations completely transparent in Liberia by providing regular information on operational revenues and expenditures; publicly publishing the assets and liabilities of senior public officers, and, updating this information on a regular basis; setting up verifiable performance benchmarks for government operations and making this information available to all stakeholders; providing opposition parties with timely information so that they can discharge their function as watchdogs of the government; empowering civil society organizations to closely monitor government operations; encouraging freedom of the press, including investigative journalism; appointing independent anti-fraud units and auditors for government operations, and, publicizing their findings; and, ensuring that local or parliamentary elections throughout the six year tenure of the government are manifestly free and fair.

A streamlined, focused and reliable public sector can assist political leaders meet their mandate regarding peace and security and the rehabilitation of refugees and former combatants. A reliable civil service will also be a critical player in encouraging local and external private sector entrepreneurs and investors to stay for the long haul. Government’s oversight of critical extractive industries will also depend on reliable civil service.

D) The government should focus relentlessly on two issues (1) restoring or creating basic infrastructure and (2) creating optimal regulatory environment during its tenure. Liberians for the next six years will benefit maximally from a government laser-beam focus on restoring electricity supply, providing pipe-borne water to all parts of the country, and, building and maintaining urban and rural roads. The government should also focus on restoring public safety services, rebuilding or constructing new primary and secondary schools, restoring the University of Monrovia to its hitherto enviable status and revamping or constructing health centers and hospitals. This focus on construction activities will also allow the new government to meet one of its cherished goals: creating jobs for able bodied men and women so that they can support their families and restore civility to their communities.

In addition, a crucial role of the government in the next few years is to create enabling policy and legal environments for public and private sector activities. The government should create enabling legal environment of streamlined laws and work on avenues for ensuring equal access to justice; create an efficient and honest civil service; encourage private enterprise, small, medium and large; empower opposition parties to function without harassment so that they can fulfill their role as checks and balances on the government in power; and, mobilize civil society organizations and community-based organizations to become critical stakeholders in national development.

E) Liberians in the Diaspora should become strategic partners in Government’s individual and private sector initiative to accelerate development. As one of the most distinguished African immigrants in the West in the last two decades, the president knows a thing or two about the strengths of her compatriots in the Diaspora. Creating opportunities for Liberians in the Diaspora to complete individual projects, safeguard personal investments in the country, create private sector generating jobs and bring major corporations to Liberia to set up factories and service delivery facilities should be an important focus of the new government. The key is to create conducive environments for Liberians in the Diaspora to maximize their potential in the urgent task of nation building.

F) Create a modern national army and police force that is well educated, representative of various ethnic groups in the country and completely untainted from the past era of impunity. This is a critical opportunity for the new government to create an apolitical, loyal and honest security apparatus that will respect the constitution, enforce laws and obey legitimate orders. This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a modern army and police force that could be the model for many African countries.

G) The government can rebuild the healthcare system in Liberia to a world class standard. The healthcare system in Liberia is almost completely destroyed. The new government has the opportunity to develop and implement a new health system from the ground-up that is anchored on (1) strong public health system (2) effective clinical care system, and (3) community mobilization/outreach system. The new healthcare system will reflect the felt (not perceived) needs of Liberians and should include health personnel conversant with the health needs of Liberians. The new health system should also aim to meet quality standards associated with best systems around the world. The outcome a strong and effective health system is that Liberia will be better prepared to deal with menace of HIV/AIDS, TB, Malaria and other infectious diseases; meet the obstetrics needs of Liberian women; meet the infant and child health needs of the youngest Liberians; and, meet the clinical care needs of all Liberians.

H) Maximize international goodwill toward Liberia by taking full advantage of GEMAP and working toward making the program unnecessary within a short time frame. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has publicly acknowledged the extraordinary outpouring of international goodwill towards Liberia. The key now is to maximize the goodwill by hitting the ground running, managing a visibly transparent government and providing verifiable evidence of democracy dividends to Liberians. GEMAP will become history as soon as the new government has a track record that signals that the days of business as usual are over in Monrovia.


Liberia faces a long road ahead. The journey to a stable, secure and effective state is not going to be easy. The new president, an internationally recognized and respected economist, has indicated that she will make a difference. The honeymoon is going to be short as long suffering Liberians look for verifiable dividends of their hard fought battle for democracy. The new government at this time has strong domestic and international support to return Liberia to its glory years. All Liberians should join hands and work together to enable the proud nation regain its natural position as a trail blazer in Africa.